- Historic Sites
The Famous Tax Included, Tea Was Still Cheaper Here
An Englishman re-examines certain stereotyped attitudes on the American Revolution
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Meanwhile, in Paris, Silas Dcanc—and Benjamin Franklin not long after—was negotiating with the old enemy, the Catholic King of France. Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, had a shrewd idea of what was going on, but could not intervene openly. A steady stream of French, German, and Swiss volunteers was crossing in French vessels to the support of the American forces, while French loans and shipments of arms kept the new republic going during the desperate winters of 1776—77 and 1777-78, the winter of Valley Forge. That winter, even after the American forces that had taken part in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga had joined Washington, the General estimated (in December, 1777) that he had only 8,200 fit men under his command. General Howe was unaccustomed, like all who learnt war in the European theater, to campaigning during the winter. He failed to realize that this was the decisive moment—before the French were Anally committed to open intervention. Nothing was done and, in effect, the war was lost. It was lost because the limited, colonial war had become a renewal of the worldwide war with France that had merely been suspended in 1763. The French had used the interval to build up their fleet, and they were now able to concentrate it in Atlantic waters. Fven before Spain with lier Navy joined the Franco-American alliance in 1779, the British had virtually lost command of the sea, and this was bound to prove fatal.
In the first place, it was proving more and more difficult to protect trade and transport men and supplies to the American theater of war. Before the official French intervention took place in 1778, the depredation of American privateers, operating mainly from French ports, had already cost Britain ^Go ships and losses equivalent to more than ^1,800,000 at rates then current. Jn 1777, stores that had left England in March did not reach Howe till the end of May, and the summer campaign did not begin till August. Secondly, for their mobility the British forces in America relied to a very great extent on transport by water. Only on rare occasions were they able to operate effectively more than fifteen miles from navigable water. Now all their movements were endangered. In 1778, when Glinton was evacuating Philadelphia, his entire army was almost intercepted at sea by a superior French fleet under D’Estaing. The sealing of Cornwallis’ escape routes by the French fleet under De Grasse in 1781 was only the culmination. The capitulation of Yorktown that followed had been written on the wall three years before, lor everyone but George III to see.
The retirement of General Howe in 1778 introduced a new handicap. While he was collaborating with his brother, Admiral Howe, relations between Army and Navy had been reasonably good. Afterward, however, old rivalries reasserted themselves. The British Navy was more interested in Rodney’s operations in the Caribbean than in transport duty off the American coast. Howe’s successor, General Clinton, quarreled with Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, who had taken up command of the Xorth American station in August, i'/yS. A British army ofScer bitterly observed of his brother naval officers: “They do not seem to think that saving the Army is an object of such material consequence.” Cornwallis showed an incapacity for combined operations. Significantly enough, he later proved himself a capable general duiirg the land struggle in India.
It is, of course, a truism that generals fight only as well as their opponents permit them to, and we must make every allowance for the genius of Washington, who not only kept his army together in the face of every difficulty but excelled in fighting the defensive war that circumstances imposed on him. He was one of the great leaders of irregular forces. Yet even so, the British generals were strangely inept. A contemporary commented: “This is an unpopular war and men of ability do not choose to risk their reputation.” A shrewd contemporary observer regarded Benedict Arnold, in command of British forces, as superior to the British generals. The latter had been trained in the European school of set maneuver and siege warfare. Even their rigid discipline put them at the mercy of an irregular force, in which every man was his own company commander, if not his own colonel. The heavy equipment of the regulars immobilixed them in the face of lightly equipped forces living off the land —their own land. The American terrain, thickly wooded and crisscrossed with streams and bogs, was unfamiliar to the British, and they failed notably to adapt themselves to it. Washington turned all these failings to good account.
What of the results of this internecine struggle? Jn the first place, of course, it welded the colonies into a union and equipped them with executive and legislative machinery and the means of defending themselves. This could have been accomplished so rapidly only under the pressure of war. The United States were now free not only to expand their commerce with any part of the world, but to populate the rich lands beyond the AHeghenies. In spite of a generous peace (i^8g), which astonished the French, relations with Britain did not fulfill the hopes of those in Britain who had always opposed exacerbation of the conflict. The War of 1812 reopened old wounds, and, as the nineteenth century continued, the scars still showed—more clearly perhaps in the United States than in the United Kingdom. I myself believe that some overemotional and unhistorical presentations of the struggle constituted a real hindrance to harmonious Anglo-American relations. It is for consideration whether, even today, a fresh look should not be taken at some of the history textbooks of our two countries.